Critical Evaluation

Seventy-seven of the eighty-five essays which comprise The Federalist were printed serially in New York newspapers between October, 1787, and May, 1788; the remaining eight first appeared in the two-volume edition published in March and May of the latter year. In an attempt to preserve secrecy of authorship, all were signed with the masking signature of “Publius.” Although historians are still in dispute over the writers of certain of the papers, the claim has been made that Hamilton wrote sixty; James Madison, fourteen; John Jay, five; and Hamilton and Madison together, six. Lengthy, repetitious, and partisan, they are nevertheless unrivaled as the classic exposition and defense of the principles on which the United States of America was founded.

In the first and concluding essays, Hamilton declared the constitution proposed by the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 to be energetic, perfectly republican, conformable to the state constitutions, and able to guarantee property and liberty. He urged the electorate to shun demagogues who disparaged its proponents as the “wealthy, well-born, and the great,” to rise above “obstinate adherence to party,” and to fulfill America’s destiny as perceived by the framers. Madison joined him in rejecting objections that the new constitution contained no bill of rights or limitation on the reeligibility of presidents. They urged its ratification and subsequent amendment as freer or less crippling compromises than attempts at revision before submitting it to the states. Madison exhorted Americans to fulfill their limitless personal and national personalities, to “improve and perpetuate” the “one, great, and flourishing empire” won by the revolutionary patriots, to compromise a “decent regard for former times” with a rejection of “blind veneration for antiquity,” and to be “manly” enough to test innovation and set a “new and noble course.” Hamilton admitted that the new constitution was not perfect, but he hailed it as “the best that the present views and circumstances of the country will permit.”

Hamilton and Madison cited as authority for the proposed constitution the Continental Congress’ summons of the convention to establish “a firm national government” on the one hand, “for the sole and express purpose of revising the articles of Confederation” on another, but above all to achieve a constitution “adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.” Madison insisted that the new document merely expanded on the principles of the articles to invigorate at this “critical” juncture the existing union with “powers commensurate with its objects.” He averred that the new method of ratification was more practicable and that the old Congress and the states should not charge with unconstitutionality the convention which they had unconstitutionally summoned. The proposed constitution should be ratified, he said, if only because “it would accomplish the views and happiness of the people,” consistent with the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that they could “abolish or alter” governments to effect their safety and happiness. Limiting this right to changing governments by “some solemn and authoritative act,” not by transitory whims of the populace or of legislative “cabals,” Hamilton denied “that a party to a compact has a right to revoke that compact” by legislative or popular acts. He would, however, exchange the old confederation’s shallow foundation of authority delegated by the state legislatures for the constitution’s firmer basis of “CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE.”

Madison scorned “theoretic” politicians who believed that “reducing mankind to perfect equality in their political rights” would equalize and assimilate their possessions, opinions, and passions. Pronouncing a democracy appropriate to small areas capable of direct government by all citizens, he endorsed a united federal republic, governed through popular representatives, as appropriate to the country and its future growth. He declared this government one of mixed national and federal characteristics because both central and state governments were derived “directly or indirectly from the great body of people” and because the voters’ ratification of the new constitution would not be an act by citizens of a consolidated nation, but of independent states. Although the central government would be national in its operation upon citizens as individuals, its extent would be federal in its limitation to “certain enumerated objects.” Both Madison and Hamilton envisaged a union more federal than national, in which each state would play a large corporate role in federal elections.

Although Hamilton agreed that the new government would deal with “enumerated and legitimate objects,” he...

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